Blue Marble

Creationists Flunk Masters Degree

| Wed Apr. 30, 2008 10:47 PM EDT

454px-Tizian_-_The_fall_of_man.jpg Hallelujah. Rationality returns. A religious group has been rejected in its bid to offer a Master of Science degree. The Institute for Creation Research, which backs a literal interpretation of the Bible, including the creation of Earth in six days, seeks a certificate to grant online degrees in science education in Texas, reports Nature. But the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board voted unanimously last week not to pass the request, following the recommendation of Raymund Paredes, the state's commissioner of higher education. "Religious belief is not science," Paredes said… Amen.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

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Bring Back the Bison

| Wed Apr. 30, 2008 10:09 PM EDT

820471096_a762ae179c.jpg Want to see bison back in the North American landscape? It's not only possible but could be achieved in only 100 years, says a coalition of scientists, conservationists, ranchers, and Native Americans/First Nations peoples. Bison are a keystone species in this continent's natural history and could repopulate large areas from Alaska to Mexico, including grasslands, prairies, mountains, taiga and deserts. The continent-wide assessment, published in Conservation Biology, is based on a "conservation scorecard" evaluating the availability of existing habitat. The goal is ecological restoration of bison, defined as large herds of plains and wood bison moving freely across extensive landscapes within historic ranges, interacting with other native species (elk, bear, wolves, prairie dogs, birds), as well as inspiring, sustaining and connecting human cultures. It will likely take a century, says the Wildlife Conservation Society, and will only be realized through collaboration with a broad range of public, private and indigenous partners.

Bison once numbered in the tens of millions but were wiped out by commercial hunting and habitat loss. By 1889 fewer than 1,100 animals survived. Of the estimated 500,000 bison alive today, 20,000 are wild, the rest live on private ranches— awaiting liberation back into the wild.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Cheney: 300 Endangered Whales Is 300 Too Many

| Wed Apr. 30, 2008 3:54 PM EDT

right_whale.jpgHot on the heels of a GAO report detailing the Bush administration's assault on the EPA, this little tidbit pops up.

Cheney's office has been delaying attempts to issue speed limits near the habitat of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale for FOUR YEARS. There are only about 300 right whales alive today, and ship collisions are their leading cause of death. As Henry Waxman wrote in his letter to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, "the death of even a single whale, particularly a breeding female, may contribute to the extinction of the species."

Pro-Nuke? Anti-Nuke? Talk About It With the Experts

| Fri Apr. 25, 2008 9:46 PM EDT

We asked a futurist, a MoJo writer, a No Nukes activist, and a weapons security expert:

What is nuclear energy's place in the future mix of energy sources?

They'll be checking in on this Blue Marble entry starting Monday to discuss their controversial answers with readers—and each other. Want to talk to Stewart Brand, Judith Lewis, Jonas Siegel, or Harvey Wasserman about their take on nukes? Now's your chance. Leave a comment below for one of the four guest Blue Marble moderators and they'll respond.

SBOttawaNukes.pngStewart Brand is a futurist with the Global Business Network and founder of the Whole Earth Catalog: I expect that nuclear will grow slowly but steadily in the mix for a couple decades, because it's a mature technology that provides baseload electricity with minimum carbon emissions. Where it goes after that depends on the rapidity of climate change; the rapidity of other high capacity energy technologies such as space solar, massive electrical storage, high-tech microbe farming, etc; and the usefulness of further nuclear technology, such as decentralized nuclear "batteries," cheaper reprocessing, fusion, etc. By mid-century or later, depending on how all those work out, nuclear could be heading toward a majority role, like in France now; or it could be headed toward a phase-out by the end of the century, replaced by better things; or the question could seem irrelevant in the face of drastic climate events forcing huge-scale geo-engineering and/or enormous human dieback in the face of collapsing carrying capacity.

Judith_Lewis_3-08_2_BW.jpgJudith Lewis wrote "The Nuclear Option" for the May/June 2008 issue of Mother Jones: Nuclear energy is far from environmentally benign, but it does have one significant advantage over coal-fired electricity generation: It does not emit carbon dioxide. Even taking into account nuclear's entire lifecycle, from mining to refining to enrichment of uranium, from plant construction to startup to waste, it adds far less carbon to the atmosphere than coal or natural gas do, and sometimes even beats solar generation. If we accept that catastrophic climate change caused by a buildup of carbon in the atmosphere is our most urgent environmental problem, we should at least consider replacing the coal-fired power that provides half the nation's electricity with nuclear energy (which currently provides only a fifth).

But while we consider it, we also have to understand that the nuclear industry also has a lot of problems associated with it, including a compromised federal monitoring agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. And then there's the waste: It's becoming ever more clear as the Department of Energy moves ahead with its plans to build a nuclear waste repository in a mountain of porous volcanic rock on earthquake fault that the DOE and Congress made a very bad decision when it chose Yucca Mountain. There needs to be much more public involvement in the process of choosing such sites.

The same goes for just about every part of the nuclear industry's operations. The industry does seemed poised for a renaissance, and it might deserve one. But if the renaissance happens, people in the U.S. need to get as much information as they can handle about nuclear power; only public participation can force industry and government regulators to do their jobs right.

Jonas%20Siegel%20head%20shot.jpgJonas Siegel is editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a media organization that focuses on the intersection of science and security, and has covered nuclear weapons and energy issues for the past five years: Since its inception, nuclear energy has earned legions of supporters. The enormous amount of energy contained in a small amount of nuclear fuel—a pound of uranium 235 has more than 2 million times the energy content of a pound of coal—alone inspired visions of grandeur. Despite its potential, nuclear energy has not overcome a range of risks—safety, nuclear proliferation, and waste—to sustain its growth in the marketplace. If nuclear is going to be a part of the world's future mix of energy sources, it needs to address these risks head on—and compete economically with other sources.


HEADSHOT-glades1.jpgHarvey Wasserman is a No Nukes activist, the author of Solartopia! Our Green Powered Earth, and edits Nukefree.org: Nuclear power has no place in our future mix of energy sources except as a costly and dangerous curse from previous bad decision-making. The Peaceful Atom is humankind's most expensive technological failure. To "revisit" this corporate boondoggle is to ignore 50 years of staggering losses. Economically, there is no reason to believe a "new generation" of reactors will be any less disastrous than the last one. The radioactive fuel chain is a major cause of global warming. The ecological, public health and safety aspects of unsolved problems with terrorism, human design and operator error, "routine" radioactive emissions, impossible spent fuel transport and management, weapons proliferation and much more make atomic energy the "Titanic" of energy generation. A dollar invested in efficiency saves seven times the energy a dollar invested in nukes can produce. Wind and solar are already proven and cheaper. Let's do that instead of re-running the same radioactive horror show.

The Problem With Nuclear: No Uranium

| Fri Apr. 25, 2008 6:09 PM EDT

Nuclear foes have long cited environmental damage as a key reason to oppose atomic power. But even pro-nukes folks may have trouble supporting nuclear power in the future, since a new report shows that high-grade uranium ore, the raw material that powers nuclear plants, is steadily declining worldwide. In fact, uranium supplies have been waning for about 50 years and the situation will only get worse as more power plants go online in the near future, requiring more fuel.

Most uranium is now mined in Australia, Niger, Canada, and some former Soviet bloc countries. But as their supplies dwindle, raw uranium deposits will likely be located deeper, of lower quality, and harder to extract. This would, the scientists involved say, make nuclear power more environmentally damaging by increasing the amount of mining, digging, and refining necessary to create enriched uranium.

"Over time, as ore grades decline and more energy is required for uranium production, this will lead to a higher carbon intensity for nuclear power, eventually becoming similar to gas-fired electricity," said Gavin Mudd, the Australian Monash University environmental engineer who conducted the study.

You can read more about nuclear's carbon footprint here. And for an overview of nuclear resurgence in the U.S., check out our current feature article, "The Nuclear Option."

Carbonfund.org: Seattle Man Offsets Entire Life; Onion: Please Give Our Headline Back

| Wed Apr. 23, 2008 4:00 PM EDT

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A typical American life offers no shortage of carbon sins to offset. Eco-conscious consumers can offset their air travel, their weddings, even their offspring. But so far, no one (that we know of, anyway) has gone whole hog and offset everything they've emitted, ever.

Enter Brad Mewhort, 33-year-old vegan, pedestrian, and apologetic air traveler. Earlier this month, carbon offset nonprofit Carbonfund.org announced that that the Seattle sales rep had just finished scrubbing his imprint from the Earth by donating the last $1,500 of a $3,000 contribution to the group. The three grand covers emissions even from family car trips when Mewhort was young, as well as all of the plane trips he must take for his job, and the recent journey to Antarctica that convinced him it was time to take action.

"I was absolutely amazed by what I saw there," says Mewhort. "It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I love penguins, I always have, and they're more incredible than I expected. Their habitat is directly threatened by the impacts of human activity. I decided that I don't want to be personally contributing to this destruction. I decided to purchase offsets as soon as I could."

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Wal-Mart Rations Rice

| Wed Apr. 23, 2008 1:24 PM EDT

rice100.jpgShoot! You were planning a rice-and-beans dinner party for 100, and you thought for sure your local Wal-Mart would meet all your bulk rice needs.

Think again. Because of rising rice prices around the globe and worries about shortages, the biggest big box has announced that it will ration long grain, jasmine, and basmati rice, allowing customers to purchase only four bags per visit.

Since the beginning of 2008, rice prices have risen 68 percent worldwide. This is one of the main reasons that food riots have broken out recently all over the developing world.

Saint Louis Meriska's children ate two spoonfuls of rice apiece as their only meal recently and then went without any food the following day. His eyes downcast, his own stomach empty, the unemployed father said forlornly, "They look at me and say, 'Papa, I'm hungry,' and I have to look away. It's humiliating and it makes you angry."

In light of this two-spoonfuls anecdote, Wal-Mart's four-bag limit sounds downright decadent, but rice rationing in the U.S. means that whatever is going on with supply and demand trends is not good. Once land-o'-plenty retailers start fretting about global food shortages, you can be sure it's time to worry.

Will Low-Carbon Diets Catch On?

| Wed Apr. 23, 2008 1:20 PM EDT

Britain's largest food retailer, Tesco, says it's going to start putting carbon footprint labels on food in its stores next month. Although the "carbon labels" will only be on food produced under Tesco's own brand name, it will be the first time a major food retailer has made such a move. Tesco worked with the Carbon Trust to find a way to calculate foods' footprints and create the labels. "It has not been simple, but we are there," said Tesco CEO Sir Terry Leahy. Leahy said details will be revealed and he hopes Tesco's labels "will end up being a standard."

Stateside, the LA Times reports that 400 college eateries serviced by Bon Appetit Management Co. will be able to provide a "low carbon diet" to students. One sign posted at a "low carbon" college cafe had a sign posted saying "Cows or cars? Worldwide, livestock emits 18% of greenhouse gases, more than the transportation sector! Today we're offering great-tasting vegetarian choices." Translation: no hamburgers today.

There have been a few disgruntled students, but Bon Appetit aims to reduce its carbon footprint by 25% by serving more vegetarian entrees and less beef, lamb, and cheese. This may sound like a small change, but if Bon Appétit's parent company also went low-carbon, it would affect 8,000 locations lincluding sports arenas, public schools, and hospitals.

Ahoy, Plastics!

| Tue Apr. 22, 2008 7:50 PM EDT

IMG_0004.jpgAs Mother Jones reported last October, bisphenol A, a chemical used in the production of plastics, is under serious scrutiny for mimicking the role of estrogen. And last Monday, the government's National Toxicology Program released a damning draft brief on the potential endocrine disruptor. As a result, last week saw a number of new companies distance themselves from BPA; most notably the iconic water bottle manufacturer Nalgene will pull bottles made with the chemical. By the end of the week, Canada announced a "precautionary and prudent" ban on the sale of baby bottles with BPA.

One of the issues at hand is that the U.S. alone produces bisphenol A at a staggering rate of billions of pounds per year—2004 saw 2.3 billion pounds produced—for use in nonbiodegradable polycarbonate plastics and epoxy. So even if a few companies, or even a few countries, ban the substance, we still have to deal with an absurd amount of lingering, toxic particles. And since BPA doesn't biodegrade, where does it all go?

Eco-Barbie? Mattel Gives This 'Green' Thingamajig a Whirl

| Tue Apr. 22, 2008 4:50 PM EDT

barbie_bcause.jpg

When I first saw the press release about a "green" Mattel collection of accessories called Barbie BCause, I thought it was an April Fool's joke. Apparently not. Mattel's new "playful and on-trend" collection of hats and bags for young girls will be released "just in time to celebrate Earth Day in style." Which is pretty ironic, really, given that Barbie dolls themselves are made out of plastic and are packaged in even more plastic. And not the kind of plastic you can throw in the recycling bin, either.